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A Street With Gentle Curves and a Well-Preserved Past

NEW YORK — A long street with prewar buildings and park views: Fifth Avenue? Central Park West? Broadway (at least, in parts)?

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C.J. Hughes
, New York Times

NEW YORK — A long street with prewar buildings and park views: Fifth Avenue? Central Park West? Broadway (at least, in parts)?

Sure. But there is a similar road that links a half-dozen historic neighborhoods and a parade of attractive architecture while offering open space across nearly its entire western flank. And it rambles up Manhattan for more than 6 miles — almost half the island’s length — which makes any obscurity all the more surprising.

The thoroughfare is Riverside Drive, and those who live on it say that it deserves to be considered among Manhattan’s most prized arteries. Residents praise its quiet, noncommercial blocks, tight-knit community and housing prices that can be nearly half what you’ll pay on similar streets.

Then there’s the adjacent, 222-acre Riverside Park, which can feel so entwined with its namesake drive that the park, street and neighborhood all feel like they are one and the same.

“Riverside has a sense of place that Central Park doesn’t,” said Batsheva Hay, 37, a clothing designer. She was in a one-bedroom condominium in Chelsea, on a block flooded by Hurricane Sandy, when she decided to move uptown to higher ground. Hay knew the Upper West Side from renting there for three years after law school, in the late 2000s. But she had always thought of Riverside, at the far edge of the Upper West Side, as somewhat rundown.

Not anymore. Hay owns a three-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment in a prewar co-op in the West 80s whose windows look out on thick trees in the summer and, when the leaves have fallen, on the Hudson River. In 2014, the apartment cost $2.8 million, on par with current values on her section of the street. Comparably sized units on Central Park West, according to listing data, average more than $5 million.

“We started looking on Central Park West because we thought that was the nice part of the Upper West Side,” said Hay, who lives with her husband, Alexei Hay, 45, a fashion photographer, and their 5-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son. “But once we came over to Riverside, we said, ‘We have to get this.'”

Riverside wasn’t always so family-friendly, said residents, brokers and park volunteers. The area deteriorated in the mid-20th century, as landlords turned once-grand apartment buildings into single-room occupancy hotels. Crime became a problem. When Rosemary MacMillan moved into a three-bedroom co-op in the West 100s from a one-bedroom rental near Broadway in the 1970s, she said, she would never venture past the park’s low stone walls. A playground on the perimeter, at West 110th Street, a favorite of her daughter’s, was about as far as she got.

“It was pretty dicey around here, and it didn’t change overnight,” said MacMillan, who is in her 70s. Now, with spruced-up lawns and restored fountains, the sloping green space is much safer, and she can be found strolling the paths several times a week.

Home values next to the park have improved as well. MacMillan’s prewar apartment, which she shares with her husband, Dennis Leftwick, a contractor, cost $32,000 in 1976, she said. Today, three-bedrooms in her building go for more than $2 million, according to sales records.

“The buildings are more remarkable over here than on Central Park West,” MacMillan said, with a lighthearted jab at a rival. Except for the Dakota, the yellow-brick landmark at West 72nd, she said, Central Park West is “more nondescript.”

— What You’ll Find

From its source at West 72nd on the Upper West Side, to its mouth, at Dyckman Street in Inwood, Riverside Drive meanders like a stream, except for a gap in the West 180s, in Hudson Heights, where the Henry Hudson Parkway subsumed the road in the 1930s. Sometimes wide, with two-lane traffic, the drive splits into tangles of smaller streets of the same name, some of which are as narrow as country lanes, as at West 97th Street.

Those splits create fragments of greenery — parks within parks, or “islands,” according to signs on some blocks, including West 94th Street, where a statue of Joan of Arc, on horseback with a sword, is an island highlight. Monuments are numerous. Eleanor Roosevelt stands under the oaks at West 72nd; Samuel J. Tilden, a Democratic candidate who won the popular vote but lost the presidency in 1876, stands at West 112th. A temple near 104th Street offers Shinran Shonin, a Buddhist monk; the bronze statue survived the Hiroshima atomic blast.

The drive’s gentle curves are by design. Frederick Law Olmsted, the Central Park creator who disliked sharp corners, laid out much of the street and park in the late 19th century. Some of the well-kept high-rises, in beaux-arts, Renaissance revival and art deco styles, hug those bends, including No. 173, a prewar co-op with a concave facade that extends a full block.

Almost every block south of West 125th is protected through historic districts, so postwar buildings are rare. (Riverside Boulevard, a new construction-dominated extension to the south, is cut from a different cloth.)

Equally eye-catching co-ops appear up and down the drive, including No. 131, at West 85th Street; No. 214, at West 94th; No. 353, which appears to be carved from a former mansion at West 107th; and No. 800, the wedge-shaped Grinnell, at West 157th in the Audubon Park Historic District.

Way uptown, modest styles and rentals dominate, though co-ops also exist, as in Inwood, at No. 1825, a six-story brick prewar building facing Fort Tryon Park.

“People are surprised when I tell them I live on Riverside Drive,” thinking it ends much farther south, said James De Lazzero, 51, a terrazzo installer who was priced out of East Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and bought a two-bedroom uptown for $175,000 in 2000. “And I have to say, the neighborhood hasn’t changed tremendously since.”

Condos, particularly the prewar variety, also dot the street, with examples at Nos. 190 and 230, as well as Nos. 270 and 750, two recent conversions.

— What You’ll Pay

In early August, there were 66 co-ops and condos for sale, at an average price of $1.67 million, according to StreetEasy. Nine of those properties were priced under $500,000, with the most affordable being a bare-bones studio co-op at No. 240 for $310,000.

As of mid-August, 114 co-ops had sold this year for an average of $1.57 million, according to StreetEasy; at the same point last year, 23 had sold for an average of $1.42 million. As for condos, 118 had sold this year for an average of $1.38 million, according to StreetEasy; in 2017, 33 had sold by this point in the year for an average of $891,000.

Rents for one-bedrooms in dedicated rental buildings averaged $3,500 a month, according to StreetEasy, with higher prices for sublets in condos.

— The Vibe

Shoppers are out of luck: Stores are practically nonexistent along Riverside Drive, although they bustle just a block or two away.

But there are diversions in the park, which has bounced back largely because of the 32-year-old nonprofit Riverside Park Conservancy, residents say. “Fifteen years ago, I had people using my shrubs as box springs,” said Barbara E. Morgan, a volunteer gardener. “People have more respect now.”

Recreational options include tennis courts, basketball courts, skateboarding areas, bike paths, even a marina, plus playgrounds, like the one decorated with hippos at West 91st.

The General Grant National Memorial, at West 122nd, also known as Grant’s Tomb, holds free weekly jazz shows in the summer. Similarly, the Soldiers and Sailors’ Monument, a tribute to the Union army in the Civil War, at West 89th, held performances of “Hamlet,” by the Hudson Warehouse Theater Company, this month.

To eat and drink, there is Ellington in the Park, a 3-year-old bistro in a former toolshed near West 105th, and Sofrito New York, a Puerto Rican restaurant with a bird’s-eye view of the George Washington Bridge in Denny Farrell Riverbank State Park, which abuts Riverside Park in the West 140s in Hamilton Heights.

— The Schools

About two dozen public-school zones cover Riverside Drive, and the schools vary in quality, with the better ones to the south, judging by test scores.

Among them is Public School 452, which serves kindergarten through fifth grade on West 77th Street. On state exams last school year, 85 percent of students met standards in English, versus 40 percent citywide; on math exams, 81 percent met standards, versus 42 percent citywide.

Students in the West 90s attend Public School 75, the Emily Dickinson School, where 44 percent of students met English standards last year, and 46 percent met math standards. Farther uptown, in Washington Heights, a zoned offering is Public School 173, where 34 percent of students met English standards, and 37 percent met standards in math.

— The Commute
No subways stop on Riverside Drive. But the 1, 2 and 3 lines, which mostly run along Broadway, are usually a short walk away. In the northernmost section of the drive, the A line is more convenient. The M5 bus, which rumbles down Riverside before heading to Midtown, is an option. And the Hudson River Greenway caters to bike commuters. — The History

“Deep valleys, marshy wastes and high, precipitous rocks” made the neighborhood a late bloomer, development-wise, according to The New York Times. But workers smoothed out the landscape with help from debris produced by the construction of Central Park. The stretch of the drive from West 72nd to West 126th — called Riverside Avenue on early maps — opened in 1880.

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